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Local leaders have a short-term rental conundrum

Mark Parker

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Airbnb advertises this home near Tropicana Field for $179 a night. St. Petersburg allows rentals under 30 days up to three times annually in residential areas. Screengrab, Airbnb.

Pinellas County is home to nearly 24,000 known short-term vacation rentals, and elected officials have found it increasingly difficult to regulate a now sophisticated and nuanced industry.

They must also balance the need for housing options and the quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods. However, state preemptions likely present the tallest hurdle for local governments.

The local political and business leaders who comprise the Tourist Development Council (TDC) discussed the issue Wednesday. County Commissioners brainstormed solutions – including establishing a department dedicated to overseeing short-term rentals – the next day.

St. Petersburg City Councilmember Copley Gerdes told his colleagues on the TDC that municipal ordinances outlaw the hundreds of short-term rentals found on popular platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo. “We just don’t have the manpower, to be very honest with you, to go out and be able to stop all of them,” he said.

“The other thing is … hotels have got very expensive,” Gerdes added. “Do I want our hotels to hurt? Absolutely not. But I also want people to travel here because we need the TDT (tourism development tax) dollars. So, we’ve got to find a balance. I’m not sure what the solution is.”

The average cost for a hotel room in Pinellas County is now over $200. The price increases exponentially according to location and the date booked.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters told her colleagues Thursday that decreasing hotel stays coincided with a spike in short-term rental listings. “They are here to stay, but we need to find a balance in which they operate in a way that the … peace and safety of the neighborhood is still sound.”

Kevin McAndrew, director of building and development review services, said the number of area short-term rentals has increased by 25% over the past year. He expects a minimum 10% sustained annual increase throughout the foreseeable future.

“This is no longer the homeowner renting out their house,” McAndrew said. “This is investment groups, small and big, that are supported by very sophisticated technology.”

The number of short-term rental complaints has soared and will likely set a new record this year.

He called the county’s current system for identifying illegal short-term rentals “entirely ineffective.” McAndrew said code enforcement complaints, once in the single digits, soared 300% in 2023 and would likely “jump even higher” this year.

Senate Bill 280 awaits the governor’s approval and would give state officials control over short-term rental licensing. Perhaps most importantly, McAndrew said it would supersede local occupancy restrictions.

The county currently allows up to 10 people to stay in a rental. McAndrew said the bill does not cap occupancy if the operator complies with space requirements.

He explained that a 300-square-foot bedroom could support six people under SB 280. A large home could easily double the current limit.

The legislation also mandates local governments to apply restrictions uniformly. That would eliminate the county’s parking requirements, which are more strict for short-term rentals than typical residences.

However, SB 280 does allow local governments to establish a registration program and fines for noncompliance. McAndrew proposed a $250 initial and $125 annual fee, with a $500 fine for failing to register.

County officials could use the proceeds to create a division of code enforcement that focuses on short-term rentals. They could also buy new software that better identifies and tracks listings.

“The $500 flat fine – they could make that in one stay,” said Commissioner Renee Flowers. “So, it’s not a deterrent.”

Several of her colleagues agreed. Commissioner Chris Latvala suggested increasing the amount to $1,000.

County Attorney Jewel White said the state caps those penalties at $500. While officials could pursue other regulatory avenues, such as noise ordinances, she said those are also difficult to document and enforce.

Peters said operators charge $14,000 for a week-long stay on Redington Beach. She said they also “gutted” beachfront mansions to accommodate 14 bedrooms.

“So, the notion that you think $1,000 for registration is too much, I think, is not accurate,” Peters said. “This is a big moneymaker.”

However, she also expressed concern that residents could not afford a $1,000 fine for breaking parking restrictions that officials must equally enforce. Others noted that some homeowners occasionally rent out a bedroom to help mitigate soaring living costs.

McAndrew said the county could implement an inspection component to the registration program. While that presents additional complexity, Commissioner Dave Eggers encouraged administrators to “push the envelope.”

“I’m just tired of having every nuance thrown … that if you do this, then we might have this problem,” he added. “And then we get such a watered-down version. I’d rather put the onus on them (operators).”

Several commissioners suggested offering a new countywide program, including the new tracking software, to municipal governments. Administrator Barry Burton said the discussion would inform potential solutions, which he will present to the board after the governor either vetoes or signs SB 280 into law.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

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    monah

    April 21, 2024at11:38 am

    How long before the state takes away a local municipality’s right to regulate short-term rentals? If it’s really big money behind them, then you know Tallahassee is only too willing to create legislation in exchange for dollars.

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